Along with Duran Duran, Billy Idol was one of the first young pop/rock artists to achieve massive success in the early ’80s due to the advent of MTV. Mixing his bad-boy good looks with an appealing blend of pop hooks, punk attitude, and dance beats, Idol quickly rocketed to stardom before hard living briefly derailed his career and almost proved fatal. Born William Michael Albert Broad on November 30, 1955, in Middlesex, England, the youngster relocated with his family for a brief spell to New York before returning back to England. After a stint at Sussex University only lasted a year, Broad found himself part of a group of teen punk rockers who befriended and followed the Sex Pistols, informally known as the Bromley Contingent. (Another member of the group was Siouxsie Sioux, eventual leader of Siouxsie & the Banshees.)
It wasn’t long before Broad realized that he too could be the frontman of a punk band, and assumed the name Billy Idol shortly thereafter. After a stint playing guitar in a group called Chelsea (interestingly, the group featured future Clash guitarist Mick Jones and future Damned guitarist Brian James), Idol put down the guitar and picked up the mic; he then recruited bassist Tony James, drummer John Towe, and guitarist Bob Andrews to form Generation X in 1976. Named after a 1960s paperback, the band signed a recording contract with Chrysalis shortly thereafter (Towe replaced with new drummer Mark Laff) and released the anthemic “Your Generation” late in 1977. An appearance on Top of the Pops helped the single and their 1978 self-titled debut, the latter produced by Martin Rushent. The band released two more LPs, Valley of the Dolls in 1979 and Kiss Me Deadly two years later before splitting up.
Disappointed with Generation X’s demise, Idol relocated to New York City, where he pursued a career as a solo artist. Hooking up with Kiss manager Bill Aucoin, Idol issued the 1981 EP Don’t Stop (comprised of a cover of Tommy James’ ’60s hit “Mony Mony” and a pair of remixed Generation X tracks), which helped the singer score another record deal with his former band’s label, Chrysalis. Idol found the perfect collaborator and partner in guitarist and Johnny Thunders look-alike Steve Stevens, and issued a self-titled debut in July of 1982. A pair of eye-catching videos for the tracks “White Wedding” and “Dancing with Myself” (the latter a remake of a Generation X composition) scored major air time on MTV, with both clips focusing on Idol’s spiky, peroxide-blonde hair and Elvis-like sneer. The debut eventually obtained gold certification, and set the stage perfectly for Idol’s big commercial breakthrough, 1984’s Rebel Yell.
Rebel Yell became the singer’s best-selling album of his career (eventually going double platinum), spawning such big-time MTV/radio hits as the album’s anthemic title track, “Eyes Without a Face,” and “Flesh for Fantasy,” establishing Idol as an arena headliner stateside. But with massive success came its many distractions, which prevented Idol from issuing a new studio album until three years after Rebel Yell. 1987’s Whiplash Smile was another sizeable hit on the strength of such hits as “To Be a Lover” and “Sweet Sixteen,” but failed to live up to the lofty expectations set by his previous releases. Stevens jumped ship shortly thereafter to launch his own band, Steve Stevens’ Atomic Playboys (and eventually was a member of Mötley Crüe singer Vince Neil’s solo band), leaving Idol to fend for himself.
An eight-track best-of set, Vital Idol, was issued later the same year, spawning one of the year’s most heavily played MTV videos — a live version of the previously recorded cover of “Mony Mony” — which helped keep Idol in the spotlight. Idol spent the next few years working on his fourth studio release, but reappeared in the summer of 1989 as part of an all-star rendition of the Who’s Tommy, with Idol playing the role of the sadistic character Cousin Kevin. Around the time of Idol’s next release, 1990’s Charmed Life, the singer was involved in a serious motorcycle accident (in which he almost lost his leg), forcing the singer to walk with a cane for a period of time; the video for the album’s lead-off single, “Cradle of Love,” featured the singer filmed from the waist up. The ploy worked, as the single (which was also used as the theme song in the failed Andrew “Dice” Clay movie Ford Fairlane) was another smash hit, making Charmed Life the fourth Idol album in a row to achieve at least reach platinum sales.